The teen years are often rife with strong emotions. Your teen might be happy one day (or hour!) and sad the next. While mood swings are usually par for the course during adolescence, mental health issues such as depression can also crop up during these years. How can you tell if your teenager is struggling with depression or simply experiencing the ups and downs of growing up? Check out this guide to identify depression in your teenager and contact his or her healthcare provider if you are concerned.
Depression vs. Temporary Sadness: What Is the Difference?
Everyone feels blue from time to time, and this does not indicate depression. It’s important to understand the differences between moodiness or sadness and depression. Here are some facts to keep in mind:
- Sadness is transient, while depression is more long-term. Depression symptoms last at least two weeks and usually negatively impact the person’s daily life. For example, a teen who has depression might not go to school, might drop friends, and might stop interacting with family. A teen who is simply sad or discouraged will generally not have these extreme behaviors.
- While depression can include crying and sadness, it can also include anger, irritability, and frustration. A teen can be both sad and angry, but sometimes anger that lasts for two weeks or longer can be a sign of depression.
- Depression can include physical symptoms. For example, a depressed teen might have headaches, digestive complaints, overwhelming fatigue, or muscle aches. Sadness will not usually cause these issues.
Identify Depression Through Red Flags
Depression symptoms can be mild, severe, or anywhere in between. It is particularly important to be aware of the signs that your teen has severe depression because depression is linked with suicide. A teen who is feeling depressed might begin to have suicidal thoughts and might even attempt suicide. And, of course, some teens die from suicide; it is a leading cause of death in young people in the USA.
If your teen is isolating him – or herself and not engaging with family members or friends, consider that a red flag that should prompt you to seek help. Apathy is another common sign of depression that needs treatment. Has your adolescent dropped out of favorite activities, such as a sports team, or did they quit the part-time job that they used to enjoy? Maybe your teen is no longer doing schoolwork or doesn’t wish to go out with friends anymore. These are things to consider when you identify depression in your teen.
A disheveled, ungroomed appearance is cause for concern, particularly if your teen has always taken pride in his or her hair and clothing. Some teens with depression will stop showering regularly and won’t care if they are wearing clean clothes.
Finally, if your teen talks about death and dying or makes comments such as, “things would be easier if I were gone,” or “I wish I were dead,” consider these strong signs that immediate intervention is necessary.
How to Talk to Your Teen About Depression
Your teen might not know much about depression or if he or she does know about the illness, might feel embarrassed or ashamed. It is important to let your teen know that depression is no different than a cold or a broken leg; it might be treatable at home or it might require professional treatment, and it’s not anyone’s fault or indicative of a weakness. It’s simply a condition that affects some people at various times of their lives.
Have some frank discussions with your teen about how he or she is feeling. Tell them that they can go to you with their concerns. They could also talk to a school counselor, their primary care doctor, or a therapist if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you. While it’s ideal that your teen goes to a parent, it’s more important that they have someone to talk to even if that someone is not you.
Lifestyle Changes That Might Raise Your Teen’s Mood
If you suspect that your teen has mild depression, there are some lifestyle changes that he or she can make that might be beneficial. Here are some that you can encourage:
- Getting enough sleep. Teens are notoriously sleep-deprived, and all mental health conditions can be exacerbated by a lack of rest. Encourage your adolescent to avoid using electronics within an hour of bedtime and to plan on getting about nine hours of sleep, which is what is usually recommended for teens.
- Exercising each day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adolescents get an hour of physical activity each day, and for good reason: Not only does exercise boost physical health but it boosts mental health as well, potentially staving off depression. If an hour is too overwhelming, simply encourage your teenager to take a walk each day.
- Get outdoors. Particularly during the winter months, people of all ages sometimes become affected by seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Spending some time in the sun each day can help alleviate symptoms and make depression fade.
- Eat well. A diet filled with processed foods, which many teens prefer, can make depression worse. Encourage your teen to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein, and whole grains.
Getting Help for a Potentially Depressed Teen
For teens with moderate to severe depression, lifestyle changes might be helpful but they likely won’t be enough to relieve all symptoms. Also, some teens with mild depression won’t notice any real relief even if they are exercising, sleeping, eating well, and getting outdoors. If your child is not feeling better with self-help remedies or if they are experiencing some of the red flag behaviors listed above, it is time to get professional help.
Make an appointment with your teen’s primary care doctor and ask them to screen your teen for depression. From there, the doctor can refer him or her to a mental health counselor or specialist for treatment. Treatment might include therapy as well as medication. Discuss your concerns.
Let your teen know that brighter days can be around the corner with a good mental health treatment program and positive lifestyle choices. Depression does not have to linger; there are effective treatments available.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.